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Return to Balance

Taoism is not a religion, nor a philosophy. It is a "Way" of life. It is a River. The Tao is the natural order of things. It is a force that flows through every living and sentient object, as well as through the entire universe.

When the Tao is in balance it is possible to find perfect happiness.

The primary religious figures in Taoism are Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, two scholars who dedicated their lives two balancing their inner spirits.

The most common graphic representation of Taoist theology is the circular Yin Yang figure. It represents the balance of opposites in the universe. When they are equally present, all is calm. When one is outweighed by the other, there is confusion and disarray. The Yin and Yang are a model that the faithful follow, an aid that allows each person to contemplate the state of his or her lives.

More a mode of living than an actual theology, Taoism asks that each person focuses on the world around him or her in order to understand the inner harmonies of the universe. It is a kind of religious system heavily focused on meditation and contemplation. The Tao surrounds everyone and one must listen to find enlightenment.

Taoism is a religio-philosophical tradition that has, along with Confucianism, has shaped Chinese life for more than 2,000 years. The Taoist heritage, with its emphasis on individual freedom and spontaneity, laissez-faire government and social primitivism, mystical experience, and techniques of self-transformation, represents in many ways the antithesis to Confucian concern with individual moral duties, community standards, and governmental responsibilities.

Taoism encompasses both a Taoist philosophical tradition (Tao-chia) associated with the Tao-te Ching (Lao-tzu), Chuang-tzu, Lieh-tzu, and other texts, and a Taoist religious tradition (Tao-chiao) with organized doctrine, formalized cultic activity, and institutional leadership. These two forms of Taoist expression are clearly interrelated, though at many points in tension. Aspects of both philosophical and religious Taoism were appropriated in East Asian cultures influenced by China, especially Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Traditionally, Taoism has been attributed to three sources, the oldest being the legendary 'Yellow Emperor', but the most famous is Lao Tse's Tao Teh Ching. According to tradition, Lao Tse was an older contemporary of Kung Fu Tse (Confucius). The third source is Chuang Tse's (untitled) work.

But the original source of Taoism is said to be the ancient I Ching, The Book Of Changes.

The Tao was written in a time of feudal warfare and constant conflict. Lao Tzu was reflecting on a way which would stop the warfare, a realistic path for humanity to follow which would end the conflict. And so he came up with a few pages of short verses, which became the Tao Te Ching. This is the original book of Tao.

It was shortly followed by a series of commentaries, and commentaries on the commentaries, and then hybridized with Confucianism, Buddhism, and a clutch of other Eastern religions. Books of Tao from around the time of Christ more closely resemble an unexpurgated 10 commandments than the poetic Tao Te Ching, carefully delineating everything from the proper system of greetings to the proper way to clean one's house. Most modern Taoists consider this to be a radical departure from the true Tao, since Lao Tzu abhorred the caste systems of Confucianism that riddled the later Taoist books.

However, Lao Tzu did leave us a problem in translation. Ancient Chinese was extremely succinct, having no verb tense or other complex grammatical construction. The first sentence, for instance, of the Tao Te Ching, is usually translated as, "The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao." Literally, that sentence reads, "The Tao that can be Tao'd is not the true Tao."

Likewise, one of the better-known phrases from the Tao Te Ching is, "I am good to the man who is good to me, likewise, I am also good to the bad man." Literally, this sentence would read, "The good man, I good him. The bad man, I good him too."

Does this mean the Sage is good to him, as most translations suggest, or that he makes him good, or both? There's as much room for interpretation in the Tao as in just about any text in existence.

Much of the essence of Tao is in the art of wu wei, action through inaction. This does not mean, "sit on your ass and wait for everything to fall into your lap."

What it really means is a practice of minimal action, particularly violent action. It is the practice of going against the stream not by struggling against it and thrashing about, but by standing still and letting the stream do all the work.

Thus the sage knows that relative to the river, he still moves against the current. To the outside world the sage appears to take no action - but in fact he takes action long before others ever foresee the need for action. Thinking well about one's actions before making them is another aspect of the Tao.

Likewise, the Taoist is not precisely a pacifist. He will take military action when he has not seen far enough ahead to prevent the need for violence in the first place. When violence is needed, the Taoist leader will fight until he has achieved his goal, and then stop, saddened at the need for bloodshed and with resolve to foresee better into the future.

Taoism can also be called "the other way," for during its entire history, it has coexisted alongside the Confucian tradition, which served as the ethical and religious basis of the institutions and arrangements of the Chinese empire.

Taoism, while not radically subversive, offered a range of alternatives to the Confucian way of life and point of view. These alternatives, however, were not mutually exclusive. For the vast majority of Chinese, there was no question of choosing between Confucianism and Taoism. Except for a few straight-laced Confucians and a few pious Taoists, the Chinese man or woman practiced both -- either at different phases of life or as different sides of personality and taste.

Classical Taoist philosophy, formulated by Laozi (the Old Master, 5th century B.C.), the anonymous editor of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and its Power), and Zhuangzi (3rd century B.C.), was a reinterpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination.

Laozi and Zhuangzi, living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism (see article on Confucianism), developed the notion of the Dao (Tao - way, or path) as the origin of all creation and the force - unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations - that lies behind the functioning's and changes of the natural world. They saw in Dao and nature the basis of a spiritual approach to living. This, they believed, was the answer to the burning issue of the day: what is the basis of a stable, unified, and enduring social order?

The order and harmony of nature, they said, was far more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. Healthy human life could flourish only in accord with Dao -- nature, simplicity, a free-and-easy approach to life. The early Taoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming with the natural way of things; they called their approach to action wuwei (wu-wei -- lit. no-action), action modeled on nature.

Their sages were wise, but not in the way the Confucian teacher was wise, learned and a moral paragon. Zhuangzi's sages were often artisans, butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative, they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Art, like life, followed the creative path of nature, not the values of human society.

Throughout Chinese history, people weary of social activism and aware of the fragility of human achievements would retire from the world and turn to nature. They might retreat to a countryside or mountain setting to commune with natural beauty.

They would compose or recite poetry about nature, or paint a picture of the scene, attempting to capture the creative forces at the center of nature's vitality. They might share their outing with friends or more rarely -- a spouse, drinking a bite of wine, and enjoying the autumn leaves or the moon.

Chinese utopian writings also often bore a Taoist stamp. Tao Qian's (T'ao Ch'ien, 372? -427? A.D.) famous "Peach Blossom Spring" told the story of a fisherman who discovered by chance an idyllic community of Chinese who centuries earlier had fled a war-torn land, and had since lived in perfect simplicity, harmony, and peace, obliviously unaware of the turmoil of history beyond their grove.

Although these utopians urged him to stay, the fisherman left to share his discovery with friends and a local official. He could never find his way back. He did not understand that this ideal world was to be found not by following an external path, but a spiritual path. It was a state of mind, an attitude, that comprised the utopia.

If Taoist ideas and images inspired in the Chinese a love of nature and an occasional retreat to it from the cares of the world to rest and heal, it also inspired an intense affirmation of life: physical life -- health, Well being, vitality, longevity, and even immortality.

Laozi and Zhuangzi had reinterpreted the ancient nature worship and esoteric arts, but they crept back into the tradition as ways of using knowledge of the Dao to enhance and prolong life.

Some Taoists searched for "isles of the immortals," or for herbs or chemical compounds that could ensure immortality. More often, Taoists were interested in health and vitality; they experimented with herbal medicine and pharmacology, greatly advancing these arts; they developed principles of macrobiotic cooking and other healthy diets; they developed systems of gymnastics and massage to keep the body strong and youthful.

Taoists were supporters both of magic and of proto-science; they were the element of Chinese culture most interested in the study of and experiments with nature.

Some Taoists believed that spirits pervaded nature (both the natural world and the internal world within the human body). Theologically, these myriad spirits were simply many manifestations of the one Dao, which could not be represented as an image or a particular thing.

As the Taoist pantheon developed, it came to mirror the imperial bureaucracy in heaven and hell. The head of the heavenly bureaucracy was the jade Emperor, who governed spirits assigned to oversee the workings of the natural world and the administration of moral justice.

The gods in heaven acted like and were treated like the officials in the world of men; worshipping the gods was a kind of rehearsal of attitudes toward secular authorities. On the other hand, the demons and ghosts of hell acted like and were treated like the bullies, outlaws, and threatening strangers in the real world; they were bribed by the people and were ritually arrested by the martial forces of the spirit officials. The common people, who after all had little influence with their earthly rulers, sought by worshipping spirits to keep troubles at bay and ensure the blessings of health, wealth, and longevity.

The initiated Taoist priest saw the many gods as manifestations of the one Dao. He had been ritually trained to know the names, ranks, and powers of important spirits, and to ritually direct them through meditation and visualization. In his meditations, he harmonized and reunited them into their unity with the one Dao. However, only the educated believers knew anything of the complex theological system of the priest.

Taoism is a religio-philosophical tradition that has, along with Confucianism, shaped Chinese life for more than 2,000 years. The Taoist heritage, with its emphasis on individual freedom and spontaneity, laissez-faire government and social primitivism, mystical experience, and techniques of self-transformation, represents in many ways the antithesis to Confucian concern with individual moral duties, community standards, and governmental responsibilities.

Taoism encompasses both a Taoist philosophical tradition (Tao-chia) associated with the Tao-te Ching (Lao-tzu), Chuang-tzu, Lieh-tzu, and other texts, and a Taoist religious tradition (Tao-chiao) with organized doctrine, formalized cultic activity, and institutional leadership.

These two forms of Taoist expression are clearly interrelated, though at many points in tension. Aspects of both philosophical and religious Taoism were appropriated in East Asian cultures influenced by China, especially Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Philosophical Taoism

The text central to all expressions of the Taoist spirit is the Tao-te Ching ("Classic of the Way and Its Power"), previously known as Lao-tzu after the name of the mysterious master traditionally said to have been its author. The cardinal concept is that of the Tao, the ineffable, eternal, creative reality that is the source and end of all things.

Tao is the Absolute, the "Uncarved Block" experienced only in mystical ecstasy.

Te is the manifestation of the Tao within all things. Thus, to possess the fullness of te means to be in perfect harmony with one's original nature.According to Chuang-tzu (fl. 4th century BC), an individual in harmony with the Tao comprehends the course of Nature's constant change and fears not the rhythm of life and death.

As is accomplished at death, so in life must the individual return to the original purity and simplicity of the Tao.

In contrast to the Confucian program of social reform through moral principle, ritual, and government regulation, the true way of restoration for the Taoists consisted in the banishment of learned sageliness and the discarding of wisdom. "Manifest the simple," urged Lao-tzu, "embrace the primitive, reduce selfishness, have few desires."

As the Tao operates impartially in the universe, so should mankind disavow assertive, purposive action. The Taoist life is not, however, a life of total inactivity. It is rather a life of nonpurposive action (wu-wei). Stated positively, it is a life expressing the essence of spontaneity (tzu-jan, "self-so").

While the Chuang-tzu and Lieh-tzu are guides directing all persons in the realization of total freedom, the Tao-te Ching is addressed in particular to rulers. Great rulers, taught Lao-tzu, simply follow Nature and the people only know of their existence.

Religious Taoism

The themes and texts of philosophical Taoism became established during the Warring States period (481-221 BC). Religious or esoteric Taoism as a movement of organized religious communities developed only in the 2nd century AD, appropriating a variety of themes and spiritual techniques associated with the common objective of immortality.

While in fundamental ways such a goal was incompatible with the aims of philosophical Taoism, there were hints in the texts of the philosophical tradition to the extension of life and the protection from harm possible for those in harmony with the Tao.

The lives of such 'perfected ones', or 'hsien' (Immortals) as they came to be called, became the central paradigms of religious Taoism.

Lao-tzu became deified as a revealer of sacred texts and a savior, and techniques of spiritual attainment became fully elaborated.

Techniques for achieving immortality included dietary regimens, breath control and meditation, sexual disciplines, alchemy, the use of magical talismans, and the search for the fabled Isle of Bliss. Dietary concerns focused on necessary nourishment while abstaining from foods that benefited the "three worms" in the body (which caused disease, old age, and death). In meditation, the Taoist adept visualized the thousands of gods that inhabited the human body (microcosm) as they inhabited the universe (macrocosm).

Through breath control and the movement of breath throughout the fields of the body, the individual both approached immortality in this life and achieved it finally through the nourishment within of a mysterious "embryonic body," which became the immortal self after death.

By avoiding ejaculation during the sexual act, it was believed that semen could be mixed with breath to further nourish the embryonic body or be forced back through the spinal passage to repair the brain. In its search for an elixir of immortality, Taoist alchemy developed both chemical experimentation (wai-tan) and a theoretical internal alchemy (nei-tan).

Nei-tan sought to invert the normal aging processes by an energizing marriage of the cosmic Yin and Yang forces within the body. Talismans (fu) were used for healing, protection from demons, and communication with Taoist immortals.

Historical development

Of the two early organized Taoist communities, the religio-political movement known as the "Way of the Great Peace" was destroyed as a threat to the Han dynasty in AD 184. A more important and enduring tradition was that of the "Way of the Celestial Masters," founded by Chang Tao-ling in AD 142.

Two late 4th-century movements were also very important: (1) the Shang-ch'ing (Supreme Purity) Mao Shan sect, and (2) the Ling Pao (Sacred Jewel) scriptural tradition.

During the T'ang dynasty (618-907), Taoism received special favor at court and was characterized by doctrinal and liturgical syntheses.

Despite attempts during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to curb a growing sectarianism, there remained in the late 20th century a polarization between classical orthodox tradition and heterodox traditions. On Taiwan, orders of the former tradition are referred to as "Blackheads" and those of the latter as "Redheads."

While the future of Taoist practice on the mainland remains in question, there has been in recent decades some renewed interest in the religion on Taiwan.

In addition, Western scholars have recently begun to investigate carefully the many contributions of Taoism to the development of Chinese culture.


Hsien, in Chinese Taoism, is an immortal who has achieved divinity through devotion to Taoist practices and teachings.

Early Taoist sages, including Chuang-tzu, referred perhaps allegorically to immortal beings with magical powers; some followers interpreted these references literally and devoted themselves to discovering the "drug of immortality" and prolonging their lives through breath control, yoga like exercises, and abstention from grains. Adepts in these practices, though appearing to die, were believed to achieve physical immortality and admission to heavenly realms inaccessible to the spirits of mere mortals. The pursuit of this state gave rise to a vast body of Taoist alchemical and other esoteric techniques and lore.

- Encyclopedia Britannica

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